Kennedy calls mountaintop removal mining a crime

AP News
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Posted: Dec 07, 2009 7:12 PM

Mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia is a crime, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Monday that if the American people could see it, there would be a revolution.

"We are cutting down the Appalachian Mountains, these historic landscapes where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett roamed that are so much a part of American culture," the environmental attorney said at a rally to stop blasting on southern West Virginia's Coal River Mountain.

"It's God who made these mountains, and it's (Massey chief) Don Blankenship who is cutting them down," Kennedy said.

Kennedy spoke as some 300 environmental activists cheered. At the same time, 200 coal miners jeered. The groups were kept apart by a line of state troopers and metal barricades.

Massey plans to blast and mine thousands of acres atop the mountain, which has enough coal reserves to feed power plants for 14 years. Organizations including Coal River Mountain Watch and Climate Ground Zero want Massey to stick with underground mining and allow the ridges to be turned into a 200-turbine wind farm.

Before taking the stage, Kennedy waded into the crowd of shouting miners and spent a half-hour debating Massey Vice President of Surface Operations Mike Snelling and others.

"He's very passionate about what he was doing and I have to give him enough credit for walking through a crowd of a lot of people he would consider adversaries," Snelling said. "He just keeps talking about the environment and the concern for the environment and the mountains of Appalachia, and what we tried to tell him is that we are just as concerned about the mountains _ or more than he is, for the fact that we live here."

The rally, held outside the state Department of Environmental Protection headquarters, was the latest of several demanding a halt to blasting on Coal River Mountain, which Massey calls contour and highwall mining, not mountaintop removal. But the protest was also about mountaintop removal and the harm that environmentalists say comes from burning coal.

In mountaintop removal, forests are clear-cut. Explosives blast apart the rock, and machines scoop out the exposed coal. The earth left behind is dumped into valleys, covering intermittent streams.

Coal operators say it's the most efficient way _ in some cases, the only way _ to reach some reserves. They also argue they reclaim the land so it can be redeveloped. Critics say the land is ruined forever, and that people, property and the environment suffer unnecessarily.

The rally fell on the same day an international conference on global warming got under way in Copenhagen, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that greenhouse gases are endangering people's health and must be regulated.

The EPA's conclusion is timed to boost the administration's arguments that the United States is acting aggressively to combat global warming, even though Congress has yet to act on climate legislation.

Those developments will likely add fuel to the siege mentality of the coal industry, which has come under growing scrutiny by regulators and growing pressure from politicians and the public.

Surface miner Pete Smith was worried about losing his job. He works for Republic Energy and carried a sign with photos of his 7- and -9 year-old daughters.

"My kids depend on coal," said Smith, of Scarbro. "I'm worried to death because that's all I've done all my life."

Horns on parked and passing coal trucks repeatedly drowned out the speakers, including an opening prayer. The miners carried U.S. flags and signs that read, "Hey Kennedy clan, fix your morals before destroying our family's jobs" and "Don't like coal? Get your power disconnected."

Kennedy said coal, which is burned for electricity, is neither cheap nor clean, as the industry claims.

Though it may cost just 9 cents per kilowatt hour, he said, Americans pay the price elsewhere _ with polluted air that leads to mercury contamination of waterways and fish, and myriad health problems.

When a pregnant woman eats fish contaminated with mercury from coal-fired power plants, Kennedy said, her child faces possible developmental problems.

"You could rob a hundred banks and you wouldn't be committing a crime as awful and heinous as that," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Tim Huber contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

W.Va. Coal Association: http://www.wvcoal.com/mountain-top-mining/what-is-moutain-top-mining.html

Coal River Mountain Watch: http://www.crmw.net/